Funding halt forces Mountain Family Health Center staff cuts
Congress’ inability to reauthorize federal health center funding after it expired Oct. 1 has negatively affected the Mountain Family Health Centers network based in Glenwood Springs.
The so-called fiscal cliff that resulted when yearly funding ended for several federal programs cut off what amounts to about 20 percent of the area health centers’ funding.
As a result, Mountain Family cut 15 clinical and administrative support positions and instituted a hiring freeze, Mountain Family Health Center Executive Director Ross Brooks said during a national telephone news conference Monday. The call was meant to draw attention to the funding crisis.
“We are a very important employer in the rural communities that we serve, with an $11 million payroll,” Brooks said of the network of clinics, which serve largely low-income patients in Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle and Rio Blanco counties.
All but three of the staff cuts involved positions that were unfilled and will now not be rehired, he said.
“It’s not just a budgeting problem for us, though, it’s about real jobs in our community, real care for our friends and neighbors, and real lives that are at stake,” he said.
Joining Brooks on the call were Lolita Lopez, president and CEO for Westside Family Healthcare in Wilmington, Delaware; Heather Pelletier, executive director of Fish River Rural Health in Eagle Lake, Maine; and Jana Eubank, associate vice president of public policy and research for the National Association of Community Health Centers.
There is some hope that Congress will act as soon as this week to restore funding for community health centers. But the uncertainty over the funding situation has already had an impact, Eubank said.
The House has already passed a bill extending funding for two more years, including support from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. But final passage is tied up in the Senate in the year-end legislative pileup that’s linked to the debate over the GOP tax overhaul plan.
In the meantime, health centers across the country are considering site closures, workforce reductions and elimination of patient services, Eubank said.
“It’s not just medical services, but mental health, dental, vision and pharmaceutical services,” she said. “We’re waiting for Congress to do the right thing and extend long-term funding.”
Community health centers are the largest primary care network in the United States, serving both rural and urban areas.
“This funding is critical, because we do target the most vulnerable in our communities,” she said.
Brooks said the funding uncertainty affects some 19,000 patients served by Mountain Family Health clinics in Glenwood Springs, Basalt and the neighboring counties. At the same time, the number of uninsured individuals and families among Mountain Family’s patients has grown from 5,700 last year to 6,700 currently.
“Without the federal support, we have really struggled to serve that population in particular,” Brooks said.
Cuts so far have not affected the 30 or so direct caregivers at Mountain Family clinics, but a prolonged funding shortfall could begin to impact those services, as well, he said.
The funding uncertainty also is impacting Mountain Family’s capital campaign to raise money for new and expanded clinics in Basalt and Edwards, Brooks added.
“Funders are leery right now because of the uncertain future of health care,” he said. “Every month that goes by without a fix does bring some instability to our capital campaign.”
Brooks said he was invited by the NACHC to be part of the conference call Monday.
Fish River’s Pelletier said the funding crisis for her oral health clinic in rural Maine could result in the loss of a recent dentist recruit who is now considering other options. The clinic provides two of the three local dentists serving the area, and one of those is about to retire, she said.
Lopez, of Westside in Delaware, offered that the funding cut meant the network had to give up the lease on one of its health-center locations and consolidate services, limiting accessibility for some of the 31,000 patients it serves.
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